What Mount Everest Can Teach Us About God
“The higher we go, the better we shall hear the voice of Christ.”
By Paige Courtney Barnes
“Mountaineering … can be a school for the maturation of strong human personalities, who learn from it mutual and generous help,continuous physical and moral training, solidarity, the spirit of service, fraternity.But this school can and must also be a valid aid for an authentic Christian formation — awakening the need for the infinite that is in the human soul, and awakening a clearer awareness of the immensity and omnipotence of God.” —Pope St. Paul VI, Address to Italian Expedition to Mount Everest, June 27, 1973
Amid the chaos of social unrest and a prolonged pandemic, it may seem as if the future is bleak. But it is not only possible to stay afloat — it is possible tothrivein society’s new normal.
In the spiritual life there is no treading water. Our souls are either growing stronger or becoming weaker. Therefore Catholics should not only strive to grow stronger during this tumultuous time, we should aim to ascend the heights of holiness. There are a few simple, concrete steps we may take to cultivate prayer and virtue amid the storms of life.
Last year National Geographic commissioned an expedition to uncover one of the long-lost mysteries of Mount Everest. The magazine has dedicated a documentary,Lost On Everest, and two separate issues of its magazine to confirming which explorers — George Mallory and Sandy Irvine in 1924, or Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953 — were the first to climb the world’s highest mountain peak. Mount Everest is a source of wonder — some people call it “the roof of the world,” suggesting that the summit of Everest is where heaven literally meets earth. Adventurers flock to Everest and risk their lives to claim the glory of reaching the summit. Conquering Everest is not only about a physical challenge — it also about experiencing breath-taking beauty first hand.
Several members of the National Geographic crew had to abandon the exploratory mission due to altitude sickness and blood clots. The only crew members to reach the summit were the photographers. In the July 2020 “Everest” issue, one of the two photographers, Renan Ozturk, recounts:
By the end, we were crawling and could barely lift our cameras. We were so weak, and some of us were blacking out on the lines. But we did get some of the highest resolution cameras ever up high on the mountain.
Oztruk literally risked his life in order to provide the media with more accurate photographs of the mountain’s unparalleled beauty.
Mount Everest, Adversity and the Spiritual Life
Mount Everest provides a fitting analogy for adversity and the spiritual life. Mountains are referenced in Scripture and in the lives of the saints. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati actually summarized his insight into the spiritual life with his motto, ”Verso L’Alto,” which translates from Italian as “To the Heights.” Frassati loved mountain climbing. He once said to his friends, “The higher we go, the better we shall hear the voice of Christ.” Frassati climbed mountains to catch a closer glimpse of God’s beauty. The young Italian also recognized that the physical challenge of ascending a tall mountain was an adventurous way of acquiring virtue. Frassati would also bring friends to hike mountains because he wanted his peers to draw close to God as well.
The pandemic is overwhelming and frustrating, but it is not insurmountable. It is noteworthy that one of the first theophanies of the Old Testament occurred on Mount Horeb. In the book of Exodus when Moses was tending his flock, God drew him to Mount Horeb and appeared in the burning bush. After God revealed Himself as the God of the patriarchs, he gave Moses his mission to liberate the Israelites saying, “I will be with you; and this will be your sign that I have sent you. When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will serve God at this mountain” (Exodus 3:12). God first revealed his beauty to Moses on a mountain, and he then instructed his prophet to bring God’s people back to worship on that very same mountain.
Catholics are taught to “offer it up” and “pick up your cross” from a young age, yet the reality of redemptive suffering is a lifelong lesson. A central aspect of that lesson is strengthening the soul with the virtues necessary to render the soul capable of receiving all the graces that God never ceases to bestow. The soul is strengthened with virtue when it encounters God on the mountain of adversity. The soul must cling to that mountain in faith, with eyes fixed on invisible God, who is not so much in the clouds, but dwelling in souls sanctified by grace.
Mountains are Conquered One Step at a Time
How can this be done during a pandemic? Faithful Catholics must renew our commitment to prayer, the sacraments and regular acts of service.
Daily prayer is the spiritual exercise of the soul. It may seem as if being trapped inside a house in quarantine provides more time for prayer, but that is seldom the case. Most families are working hard to balance full time care for children with work from home, in addition to all the daily chores. Even if parents can set aside time for prayer, they may find themselves to be too mentally exhausted to focus their attention for an extended period of time.
When the mind is prone to wander, it is helpful to pray with Sacred Scripture. Daily Mass readings or preparing ourselves for Sunday Mass, by reading the Sunday Gospel all week long, are two simple ways of strengthening the soul with the word of God.
We must also seek the grace of the sacraments. Maintaining the practice of bi-weekly or monthly confession opens our souls wide open to God’s grace. In addition to Scripture and the sacraments, love of God is cultivated by solicitude for others.
During this difficult time many people are feeling isolated and cut off from their communities. We can reach out via Zoom, traditional phone calls, or with visits that maintain the proper social distance. If every faithful Catholic were to pick one person, and invest at least one hour of time and energy into checking in on that person consistently, both individuals would benefit.
Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati was a young man of action. He lived a vibrant life of prayer, and that prayer bore fruit in works of mercy to the homeless of Turin, Italy. Frassati was fascinated by mountains, and he discovered that mountain climbing was a unique way to contemplate God’s beauty.
Almost a hundred years later, adventure seekers are still drawn to the beauty and mystery of Earth’s highest peaks. Now that National Geographic has provided the media with awe inspiring photographs of MountEverest, the Catholic imagination can better contemplate the mysteries of the spiritual life. Catholics can actually thrive in the face of crisis and adversity by making a concrete resolution to nourish our souls with daily prayer, sacraments and works of mercy.
Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, pray for us, that nourished by daily prayer, sacraments and works of mercy, we may thrive and draw ever closer to Jesus Christ in these difficult times. Amen.